Since joining the hospitality industry in Shenzhen, China in 2013, Lola Lau has become one of the country’s most renowned mixologists. She was first recognised on a national stage when she took home the title of Cointreau Queen in 2017, later becoming Patrón Perfectionist China Champion and the Cointreau Margarita Challenge Global Champion in 2023.

Now Bar Manager at Hope & Sesame in Shenzhen, Lola recently visited Australia, taking over Sydney’s Grain Bar for two nights of cocktail masterclasses and a seminar where she shared the inspiration for her winning Margarita Challenge cocktail, and her strategy for creating a winning entry.

Speaking about the inspiration for her masterful reinterpretation of the Margarita, Lola said: “Last year’s theme, was to base the story of your cocktail in 1948 at Margaret Sames’ party, which we believe is where the Margarita was invented.

“You couldn’t use modern techniques, everything that you used had to have been available in 1948, and another other rule was that you needed to use salt. It didn’t matter where or how, but you had to use salt.

“Because of the theme, I really wanted to explore a perfume style cocktail, but very well-balanced and easy for people to drink. For my story, I imagined a person from the Far East entering the party, and when she walked past her perfume would give you a strong impression. So, I used Eastern-style ingredients in my cocktail, which were old wood, peppercorn and jasmine tea.”

Lola says a big consideration when selecting her ingredients was choosing flavours that would complement the citrus of the Cointreau, remembering that this is the focal ingredient and should be highlighted in the cocktail.

Using 60ml of tequila, 20ml of jasmine tea-infused Cointreau, 20ml mixed peppercorn cordial and 20ml verjus, Lola created the Mysterious East Margarita.

“For the peppercorn cordial I used citric acid and malic acid,” says Lola. “The citric acid has a straightforward structure and it’s sharp, but malic acid is like a sweet lover, it gives you a longer aftertaste.

“Verjus becomes a big part of the sourness in the cocktail, it’s very rounded and has a comfortable sourness with a lot of flavour.”

Lola Lau

After showcasing her Mysterious East Margarita, Lola went on to explain her key considerations when creating a cocktail competition entry, starting by reading the rules and fully understanding the limitations of the competition and the technicalities of each rule.

For Lola, the next step is to brainstorm, as she explains: “Your target here is to choose a theme, a topic or inspiration, but just one. You might have many amazing ideas, but don’t get lost in them, choose one and make it shine. After you choose your idea, study it deeply and do your research.”

Once you have brainstormed your ideas, Lola recommends deciding on your main flavour, secondary flavour, and supplementary flavour, often by starting with your focal ingredient and visually mapping the other ingredients that can be used to complement it.

“This is very important for balancing your drink. For me, a balanced drink doesn’t mean that every ingredient is on the same level, it has to have a focus after all. For example, with a classic Margarita, you don’t taste every ingredient at the same level, and this is a style that you have to choose by working out which ingredient you want to shine.

“In my cocktail, it’s more of a sweet and sour-forward cocktail. I’m trying to make Cointreau shine, and by infusing Cointreau with jasmine, which goes very well with citrus, I emphasise the flavour of the citrus.”

Finally, once Lola has her ingredients, she focuses on structure, technique and polishing.

“You can play with many fun structures, some people make milk punch, some make a wine-style cocktail. It doesn’t matter which structure, but you do need to choose one, and in my case, it was the structure of a Margarita, but broken down a little bit.

“The way you polish your cocktail is also very important. You can think about the garnish, the colour, the look of the liquid. My drink looks very simple, it’s served in a Nick and Nora glass with mixed peppercorn powdered salt on the outside as a garnish. But I used gold accessories, and the story I created for the judges was that people enjoy this cocktail so much that they take it to their room after the party, they take it to bed and they fall asleep holding it.

“It’s your story, make it glow, make it fun, and make it memorable.”

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